Ask any public high school student: violent in-school fights are on the rise and discipline is on the decline. Just consider one public high school: Madison East in Madison, Wisconsin.
In late September, local media reported a series of “disturbing” cell phone videos depicting vicious fights and beatings occurring in class and on school grounds over the course of several days. Then, several hundred students walked out of school twice in one week protesting the school’s sexual harassment policies.
The protest apparently spilled over to other local high schools, resulting in marauding groups of students causing “harm to others,” damaging “property in the downtown area,” and publicly “calling out” suspected sexual harassers, according to an email from one of the area school districts.
A few days later, on Oct. 20, 10 police officers responded to fights in a “massive crowd” of more than 100 students at Madison East. On Nov. 8, more than 15 police officers responded to what the media described as a “melee” in which five students were taken to the hospital. The next day, more than one-third of all students stayed home out of fear.
In all, Madison police were called to Madison East and its “surrounding area” 63 times during the first few months of the school year.
Madison East is no outlier. A simple Google search reveals similar headlines from around the country: “Woman with gun arrested as IMPD breaks up large fight at George Washington High School” in Indiana, “Big brawl At Woodhaven High School results in minor injuries” in Michigan, “Police investigating after large fight in parking lot of West Mecklenburg High School” in North Carolina, and “Reynolds Middle School is shutting down in-person learning for 3 weeks to address student fights, misbehavior” in Oregon. All these stories originated during the same week.
So what could be causing such a spike? Or perhaps more frighteningly, is this a new normal? Many factors may be contributing to this upward trend, but a few probable culprits require serious scrutiny.
Missed Socialization From COVID Closures
Even before COVID, the trend was towards more violence in schools. The number of violent incidents on public school campuses increased a staggering 185 percent from 2016 to 2019, according to a recent study. But following months of lockdowns, closed schools, and virtual learning, this trend accelerated as kids returned to school.
For example, the National Association of School Resource Officers reported a tripling of gun-related incidents in schools between August and October 2021, compared to the same three-month period in 2019. One Florida principal, at a recent national school safety conference, summed up what many schools are experiencing: “Some students, who had no history of issues, suddenly started aggressive behavior when our high school resumed last August.”
Perhaps this should be no surprise. With students returning to school after a year of missed socialization, and the emotional damage it wrought, it seems only natural that student-on-student violence would increase.
Less Discipline and Fewer School Resource Officers
In addition to COVID policies and their impact on socialization, schools are contributing to the problem by intentionally weakening discipline policies. Largely in the name of political correctness, school districts around the nation have been working to reduce racial disparities in suspensions.
Based on the notion that any difference in suspension rates among students of different races is inherently racist, suspension rates around the nation have declined significantly in recent years, with little evidence of improved student behavior. Previous research by our organization, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, has found that declining suspension rates are directly correlated to students feeling less safe in schools.
Exacerbating the decision to reduce suspensions, many school districts have also cut ties with local law enforcement by removing School Resource Officers (SROs). SROs are uniformed police officers specially trained, hired, and paid by police departments to work in public schools. Since the death of George Floyd, at least 33 public school districts (mostly in large cities), including the district covering Madison East, ended their relationships with local law enforcement and removed SROs.
Anti-Police, Pro-Riot Rhetoric
Relatedly, anti-police curriculum is increasing. Nationwide, examples abound of teachers portraying police officers as racist murderers, displaying banners such as “F-CK THE POLICE,” and even teaching children as young as three that police are racist because a “white-supremacy fairy” whispers evil thoughts into their ears.
On the other hand, students are taught to praise lawless protesters and looters. One teacher was fired after he was caught on tape praising the violent and extreme political movement Antifa. Another public school teacher justified riots as an “uprising” and labeled rioters as “freedom fighters.”
Yet another teacher took to Facebook to express his desire for rioting and looting to come to his hometown, posting “Burn down the entire city as well!” and later “I mean what I said. Loot and burn it down!” Another teacher was fired for doing the opposite: criticizing looting and rioting in Chicago.
Tied up in this curricula is also an increasing call for students to embrace “activism.” For example, the “BLM at School” curriculum, which is taught in many public schools, promotes a “national uprising” and student-led protests.
Portland public schools even promoted multiple “mock protests” with children as young as five raising their “black power” fists, middle schoolers calling for defunding the police, and high school students demanding reparations while marching through “the whitest part of the city.” Teach For America, a nonprofit aimed at putting well-educated teachers in urban school districts, claims that “youth-led activism,” and not high-achieving students, “is key to building a better world.”
This is a dangerous cocktail: missed socialization due to lockdowns, falling suspension rates, sidelining and demonizing police, praising looters, and encouraging activism. When these policies are considered together, perhaps it is no surprise that our public schools are becoming more violent.
One silver lining is that each of these policies can be reversed. At bottom, this is a matter of school policy. Nothing inherently wrong with our kids. It is therefore time for education policymakers to abandon their current anti-authority and anti-discipline policies, and return schools to what they should be: safe learning environments for our children.